A life-long renegade, Coe first got into trouble with the law when he was nine years old, depositing him in reform school. For the next 20 years he would be in and out of correctional facilities, including the Ohio State Penitentiary, where he spent most of his 20s. The stories about Coe are legion, and separating them from the truth would be like separating Coe from his many tattoos. But legend or truth has it that Coe spent time on Death Row for killing a fellow inmate who demanded a blowjob. Some years later a Rolling Stone writer would investigate this story by talking to people at the prison, ultimately questioning the account. Coe penned a musical response for the writer, his song, "I'd Like to Kick the Shit Out of You."
When Coe got out of prison in 1967, he drove down to Nashville, and parked his hearse (in which he was living) by Ryman Auditorium, home to the Grand Ole Opry. He took to wearing a rhinestone-covered suit (given to him by Mel Tillis on the condition he wear it), and even at times a Lone Ranger mask. It must've been quite a sight, this longhaired, earring-clad, heavily bearded rebel in a rhinestone suit, hanging around the back door of the Opry. People who saw him thought he was a star of some sort, but didn't know who he was, and so took to calling him The Rhinestone Cowboy, years before Glen Campbell penned his huge No. 1 hit of the same name.
Or so the story goes.
In 1968, Coe secured his first record deal and released Penitentiary Blues, a set of songs recounting his time inside. As much driven by a barroom blues aesthetic as honky tonk country, this almost rock-driven raw energy would become a signature both of Coe and the "outlaw" sound he'd help pioneer with friends Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Coe would even arrive on stage for his shows astride a Harley, sporting the colors of his cousin's gang, The Outlaws, with whom he once ran, and from which the outlaw country movement supposedly took their name.
Or so the story goes.
Several years and an album later, in 1972, Billy Jo Spears would have a minor hit with "Souvenirs & California Mem'rys," but Coe's biggest break would come a year later when Tanya Tucker had a number one hit with Coe's "Would You Lay With Me (In A Field of Stone)." A heartbreaking song of devotion, it asks "will you still love me when I'm down and out/In my time of trials will you stand by me," and helped establish Coe as one of Nashville's hottest songwriters, earning him an album deal with Columbia. The two albums that followed -- The Mysterious Rhinestone Cowboy and Once Upon a Rhyme -- are possibly the best in Coe's catalog.
They feature Coe's definitive version of Steve Goodman's "You Never Even Called Me By Name," where he opines that the perfect C&W song must have a mama, a train, a truck, a prison and drunkenness, as well as his haunting "Jody Like A Melody," which would presage his marriage to Jody Lynn in the 80s. ("God must have heard the song because He sent this lovely girl to me and I was smart enough to marry her," Coe would say later.) Coe would take the Goodman song into the Top 10, and followed it with the Top 20 ode "Longhaired Redneck," but Johnny Paycheck would make it even bigger singing Coe's rambunctious "Take This Job And Shove It."
Success didn't exactly calm Coe down. For a while he was married to two women (he's been divorced at least five times), and he recorded several albums worth of X-rated songs. Sold out of the back of the Easyrider biker magazine, Coe was inspired to record them, according to his account, by his friend Shel Silverstein, who had just played him an album he'd made, Freakin at the Freaker's Ball, and fell over laughing when Coe countered by playing some of his own dirty songs.
The songs, including a particularly virulent racist one, would haunt him later, particularly when writer Neil Strauss of the New York Times took the songs to task (20 years after their release) for being "among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter." Coe has protested many times since that he's not a racist, and has played with and befriended many black musicians, but like the more than 300 tattoos that dot his body, the racial epithet has haunted him. (In the mid-90s, Coe would decide to cover his old tattoos with new ones as a way to break with his past.)
As the 80s turned to the 90s, things took a decidedly downward turn for Coe, chiefly through a 1990 bankruptcy proceeding that saw the IRS seize nearly everything Coe owned. Gone were the publishing rights to all his songs, sold almost literally for a song at $20,000 -- the amount of his next royalty check, it turned out. Federal agents interrupted a concert in Knoxville, storming the stage, taking the guitar right out of his hands, as well his diamond rings, the cash out of his pocket and his belt buckle. His home in Key West was seized as well, and for a while Coe lived in a cave. In the mid-90s, Jody Lynn officially ended their decade-long marriage.
But of late, Coe has turned the corner. He refuses to play any of those old X-rated songs, and has adopted a heavy touring regimen (leavened by a bit of time in the casinos, where we unsuccessfully tried to reach him for an interview). He's recorded some music with Pantera (still unreleased) and Kid Rock ("Single Father" & "Son of Detroit" off Rock's self-titled CD), and toured with the latter, as well as Hank Williams III and Unkle Cracker, exposing a whole new generation to his music.
Though his concerts are unpredictable -- he often doesn't finish songs, and has been known to interrupt shows to perform magic tricks -- Coe remains an enigmatic, colorful and charismatic character that defies description. Perhaps his friend Billy Joe Shaver said it best when he commented, "How do you describe David to people who have never met him? He's like a carnival -- a carnival with every ride running."
David Allen Coe plays the Neighborhood Theatre on Friday. Moonshine Fudd and Cito open. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door, which opens at 8pm.